July 25, 2009:
After years of talk, India has finally contracted a firm (from Ukraine) to upgrade and refurbish its aging fleet of over a hundred An-32 transports. This will include new engine components, new cockpit electronics and refurbishing or rebuilding structural elements as needed. This will enable the An-32s to serve another 15-20 years, as well as increasing range and payload a bit. This is a lot cheaper than buying new aircraft (about $10 million each for an An-32, and more than double that for a Western equivalent.)
What finally got the contract signed was the recent crash of an An-32, while flying in the mountainous north. The wreckage was found at 12,000 feet. It's tricky flying in this kind of terrain, not just because of the mountains, but because of the bad weather, and the fact that the An-32s are old. The upgrades will cost about $3 million per aircraft. The work begins this year, and will not be completed until 2017.
The An-32 is actually a modernized, and most recent version, of the Russian An-24 transport. The original design is from the early 1960s. Over 1,100 AN-24s were built, and over 600 are still in use. Before the end of the 60s, some 600 of an improved version, the An-26, were built, and about 300 are still flying. It's easy to confuse the An-24 and An-26, and journalists (and government officials) often do so. In the 1970s, even more powerful versions (An-30, An-32), entered service, but only about 360 of these were made. India was the principal customer for the 27 ton An-32, which is basically an An-26 with better engines and modifications for tropical operations. This version can carry 6.7 tons of cargo or up to 50 passengers. Max speed is 540 kilometers an hour and range is 2,500 kilometers. The crew consists of two pilots and a loadmaster.
Antonov built the original An-24 series to be simple, rugged and easy to use and maintain. They succeeded. Four decades later, it should not be surprising that nearly a thousand An-24 series aircraft are still working. That's not the first time this has happened. After 70 years, there are still several hundred American DC-3 transports working in odd (and often remote) parts of the world.
But with age comes problems. Engines, and other parts of these aging aircraft, are prone to fail at bad moments. A major problem with the An-24 is the shortage of spare parts. The network of factories producing the parts, fell apart when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The parts supply network has been slowly rebuilt, with many factories outside of Russia now producing needed components. Quality of these parts varies, which adds to the sense of adventure one has when flying in these aircraft. India manufactures many spare parts itself, and the refurbished An-32s will consist of many new parts (like a modern electronic cockpit) made in India.